I arrived early, and that's why I began my day mourning a man I'd never met.
Years and years ago I was doing a lecture tour in the United States. One of the stops was a large institution, the size of a small town, where I was going to be lecturing in the chapel. I like to arrive early and did so that day. There were no cars in the parking lot save one parked in the space reserved for the pastor. I pulled along side and parked.
With my stuff clumsily gathered in my arms, I entered the chapel. My footfalls echoed as I moved from the outer door to the door to the sanctuary itself. When I did I noticed a coffin, set on a pedestal, just in front of the altar. I immediately felt like I was intruding, even though the room was empty, save for the coffin. I sat at the back and waited, but not for long. A short, chubby woman entered from a door just off the front, wearing robes and a sorrowful face. She looked up, noticed me, smiled in acknowledgement. She made her way to me.
She welcomed me and asked me what my relationship was to the man who had died. I told her that I was early for the lecture I was to give in that space in just over an hour. She said, "I was really hoping that someone would come." She invited me to come to the front and be there as she conducted the short service. I followed her up. She showed me a picture, laying on the top of the coffin, of the fellow who had died.
It was one of those pictures that, once seen, are not forgotten. It was an old picture, he was crouched on a bench in a large open ward. Wearing only pyjama bottoms, he was impossibly thin. One arm was wrapped around his waist, the other was held forward, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He did not look at the camera. It wasn't the picture of a person, it was a picture of despair and neglect and loneliness.
The service began. It was, as she said it would be, short. It ended with her placing both her hands on the coffin and bowing her head in deep prayer.
I found myself crying.
January 23rd we mark the "International Day of Mourning and Memory" where we remember those who spent their lives in institutions and those who fought for the right to live in the community, to live with freedom.
It is a day where you are invited to spend some time thinking of the journey, the struggle, the fight for civil liberties and freedoms for people with disabilities and recommit yourself to the vision of a world beyond inclusion, a world of welcome. It is a day where you are invited to spend time talking with others about our history; of congregation and segregation; of bullying and violence. It is a day where you are invited to remember those, you personally remember, who never lived long enough to be free.